Forecasters facing furloughs during hurricane season

Kathryn Sullivan, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gives the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season outlook during a news conference Thursday at NOAA headquarters in College Park, Maryland. The NOAA Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook says there is a 70 percent likelihood of 13 to 20 named storms of which 7 to 11 could become hurricanes including 3 to 6 major hurricanes.

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Kathryn Sullivan, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, gives the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season outlook during a news conference Thursday at NOAA headquarters in College Park, Maryland. The NOAA Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook says there is a 70 percent likelihood of 13 to 20 named storms of which 7 to 11 could become hurricanes including 3 to 6 major hurricanes.

With hurricane season approaching and the devastating Oklahoma tornado only days past, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is considering mandatory furloughs for all employees, including weather forecasters.

The proposal has produced sharp reaction from meteorologists and an elected official.

"The severe weather events in Oklahoma this week have further convinced me that we should not take any chance that avoidable furloughs might result in a degradation of weather prediction and forecasting services," Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., wrote in a letter Wednesday to the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA.

Facing a $192 million shortfall because of sequestration, NOAA has proposed furloughing each of its roughly 12,000 employees for four days this summer, said spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton.

The plan calls for each worker to take two furlough days in July and August, starting July 5.

Though Clayton said the furloughs would be difficult, she said NOAA has little time to manage the shortfall before the end of the fiscal year in September because Congress did not pass its spending bill until late March.

"We really weren't left with an option to not have these furlough days happen during hurricane season," Clayton said.

Hurricane season begins on June 1.

Clayton said NOAA will make sure the National Hurricane Center in Miami is adequately staffed at all times, even if the agency moves forward with furloughs.

Civilian employees at MacDill Air Force Base who work on NOAA's fleet of weather planes, the "Hurricane Hunters" that fly into storms to collect data, would be furloughed. But Clayton said some of the people responsible for operating the planes are part of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, which would be exempt from the cuts.

If weather models show a hurricane approaching the Gulf Coast around the time of a mandated off-day, Clayton said, NOAA would consider canceling the furlough.

But such a cancellation would work only with storms that give days of warning, said Dan Sobien, head of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

"There are other times when storms just pop up in the gulf and you don't have that kind of lead time," Sobien said.

Many weather service centers already operate with minimal staffing, he said.

Sobien said furloughs could leave some weather service stations without the resources needed to send up weather balloons, potentially leading to less-accurate forecasts. He said employees working on short-staffed furlough days could also become fatigued.

"Nobody's going to intentionally not issue a warning or let somebody die because of something, but I fear that people won't be making as sharp decisions," said Sobien, a Tampa forecaster who also serves as union president.

Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground, said potential furloughs in August at the peak of hurricane season could be dangerous.

"Odds are they'll get away with it," Masters said. "But you could have a surprise situation where some significant weather blows up on that day when it wasn't expected."

The importance of quick and accurate forecasts in severe weather was borne out this week with the massive Oklahoma tornado.

Weather service meteorologists were credited with saving lives when the storm hit Moore, Okla., killing two dozen people.

Clayton said employees issued their first warning 16 minutes before the tornado touched down, four minutes faster than the average.

NOAA is still in the process of deciding how it will address its budget shortfall, Clayton said.

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow him on Twitter @zacksampson.

Forecasters facing furloughs during hurricane season 05/23/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 12:42am]

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